Decluttering: Mind and Space

I’ve put the resources list at the top for my fellow disorganized people. Maybe you don’t have time to read this whole page at one sitting, so I’ll cut to the chase and take you to what was the beginning of the final solution to all my practical living problems, material and immaterial.

Short List of Resources: Two books and one website

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Marie Kondo

Toxic Success: How to Stop Striving and Start Thriving, Paul Pearsall

The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus

The Back Story

I have problems. I don’t live in the material world half the time. And because my brain does not process the concrete, sensory world too consciously, I am really, really messy. And yet I hate messiness!!! I readily admit that when things are cleaned up it helps a lot (though if someone besides me cleans up my messy desk, I feel lost). So let me introduce you to the solution for everything practical, physical, and concrete in your life: Engineering.

It takes time to form new habits and you are not going to change 100 things about yourself overnight. In fact, you’d probably have to reprogram your cognitive functions entirely. In fact, you’d have to stop being who you are. No, let’s do something better. Limit the habits you need to change to about 20 for life. All right, 10. Those are the things you must incorporate into your lifestyle (like brushing your teeth).

But beyond that, you just can’t process it. Instead, learn to do an end-run around the parts of your life that aren’t quite working. Like if you just can’t wake up in the morning but have to be at work, then you need to engineer how and where you store your clothing for the purpose of dressing with your eyes closed. Given time and success, you’ll want to eventually identify every area where your brain doesn’t work the same as Martha Stewart’s, and then engineer that area accordingly. This involves decluttering, re-thinking how you store things, and minimalizing whatever doesn’t fit with your needs, lifestyle, or mission in life.

Photo credit: lorinleecary on VisualHunt / CC BY

Are You Ready to Change Your Life? Yeah…? How ready?

You know that book at the top of that short list above? A client recommended it when my other half told her how crowded our small house was. And it’s not like we hadn’t already unloaded a ton of stuff when we married and set up housekeeping. But it just wasn’t enough!

“I bought this book by this Japanese lady, “she said, “and I promise —  It will change your life.” Her staunch affirmation convinced us to give it a go. She was right.

I have organized and re-organized our spaces about six times since then. (Once is not enough. Give yourself time to live with each re-organization, and you will keep seeing better and better ways to do things. Don’t rush.) That book, plus watching videos and reading articles on “tiny houses” and “how to organize kitchens, etc.” helped me develop an eye for engineering spaces. (I mention the beauty of engineering life in Way Finding.)

In time, I even came up with better solutions for my personal space requirements than what I found in Kondo’s book. The point is not to enslave yourself to one person’s method, but to learn what it takes to make your living space serve your needs. (I fold certain items the non-Kondo way when it suits the space better.)

But Here’s the Deal …

Recently, a friend in a dire situation asked me to help her make sense of her living space. When I mentioned Kondo’s decluttering book, she said, “Oh I think I own that book. It’s buried under some stuff somewhere.” It gave me a chuckle because that’s exactly the way it goes for most of us.

I come from a long line of people who hoarded, lived through the Great Depression, or operated out of insecurities of different kinds. I’ve emptied several homes like this after people passed, moved, or went into a nursing home. What a nightmare! Consequently, I decided to live minimally so I would never put someone else through that. I learned a few sensible things that are pretty commonplace:

  1. When new things come into the house, a corresponding number of old or used things goes out.
  2. Don’t buy new unless something fills a need that can’t be met otherwise, replaces something worn out, or is an upgrade (in which case the old item goes out, pronto!).
  3. Don’t be fooled into thinking an upgrade is necessary if it doesn’t do anything substantially different than the old item.
  4. Eliminate things you don’t need duplicates of. Keep only two of the smallest items like potato peelers, ’cause you know they can get misplaced right when you need them!
  5. Examine your mind when you can’t let go of something — why do you want to hang onto it? Do you need help eliminating things? (I held onto a bouquet of plastic flowers from my mother’s funeral for 10 years because getting rid of it felt like I was getting rid of her. I didn’t even have a place for it, nor did it hold memories of her actual life. I finally asked someone else to dispose of it and not tell me where it went.)
  6. Organize, condense, and stack things vertically where you can. (I have enough space just in my kitchen now to store lot of canned and dry goods that I couldn’t before!)
  7. Re-organize every few months until you feel you can function the way you need to.

The results will be that you can see what you have and quit buying duplicates of things you can’t find. (I had three grey t-shirts and didn’t even realize they were separate items until I re-organized my dresser drawers the “Kondo” way.)

What About the Other Parts of Your Life?

There are numerous ways to pare your life down to the people, things, and matters of life that are most important. You don’t have to live like a monk in the desert with one cup of weak soup per day. You just have to decide what are the most needful things in your life and reorganize around meeting those needs.

Some people make vision and mission statements for themselves. Others cut out pictures to remind themselves of what they are shooting for in life. The point is to consider what you want very deeply, for life is not simply a matter of meeting career ambitions. It is also a matter of finding meaning, paying attention to spiritual matters, staying connected with people you love (and more). Get rid of what interferes with your wholeness.

Many years back I picked up a book for half-price called Toxic Success. It caused me to consider how I wanted to live as opposed to how I thought I was supposed to live and what other people considered “successful living.”  A few years after that, my son got his first real paying job, and I instructed him not to look for the fanciest house he could get, but to choose a good starter house at a reasonable price and be content with that. He did, paid it off very early, and has gained a world of experience improving it himself. (And without massive monthly mortgage payments!!!!) Consider ways like this to enjoy your life and not be owned by your things.

The Minimalists website first attracted me because it was so similar in outlook to Toxic Success. A lot of life-engineering involves examining one’s own motives, psychological needs, habits of outlook — so it’s very much a combination of introspection as well as practical outworking.

Motivation is key to success in decluttering — physically, mentally, and emotionally. If more people really understood the motivating factor, I think fewer of us would buy books on decluttering and then lose them under piles of stuff as my friend did.

What motivates you to declutter? Well, let’s look at what decluttering can do for you. And then ask yourself if you want the results it will achieve.

Decluttering will eliminate:

Prep time getting out of the house

Leaving something indispensable at home and then realizing you don’t have it when you are at your destination 100 miles away (or worse)

Being distracted from your current project because your work area is littered with the remains of several ongoing projects — you never took into account storage space needed for projects in transit (dummy!)

Searching for things right under your nose (Now why is it you were late for that party? That meeting? You were probably searching for where-in-the-sam-hill you put something.)

A Final Word

I’m gonna tell it to you straight. Some things are not going to change. There are neat people and there are—ahem—”spontaneous” people. If you are reading this and identifying with a lot of it, you are likely a “spontaneous” type. You are at least a lot of fun because you are genuine and authentic (I like you already!) — unlike those neat so-and-sos who live to impress others.

The day came when I was able to have actual, real life people over for entertainment. I was shocked when they looked around and pronounced our house to be beautiful. There was physical and visual breathing space at long last, and it had achieved organic and effortless harmony. In fact, right after I finished writing this page I told my husband that our house is now about as good as it can get without actually cleaning itself.

But my main point is that if a “spontaneous” person like myself can achieve this, so can you. I still can’t keep up with everything, but my layout makes it easier and quicker to correct any disorder. I can actually find stuff most of the time. My spaces are designed largely to circumvent the way my brain actually works rather than trying to reforge my brain entirely. Your own psychology is ten times more important than your physical spaces in efforts to declutter. Never forget that.

Your space.

Your life.

Your brain wiring.